From the director of the classic punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization (1981), the action-packed drama Suburbia (1983) has a good, authentic punk rock sound rather than the faux punk expected of Hollywood films, as it should have with songs by The Vandals, T.S.O.L., The Germs, and D.I. The film is neither underplayed nor exaggerated; this is how punk looked & sounded in the day.
Some kids are squatting in abandoned housing, their neighborhood named in its grafitti "Hell Suburbia." Packs of vicious feral dogs roam the streets.
The superb character array includes the back-scarred blonde Sheila (Jennifer Clay); Joe Schmo (Wade Walston, basist for the US Bombs) with spiky black hair; Jack Diddley (Chris Pedersen), a nice white-haired leather punk; Ethan (Andrew Pece) the child with a mohawk; drug addicted Keef (Grant Miner); Skinner (Timothy O'Brien) the skinhead; Razzle (played by Flea of the Red Hot Chile Peppers) with his pet rat Ratty (played by Ratty), & many such
They're just kids squatting & surviving together, having escaped from homes so bad that Hell Suburbia really is an improvement. They call themselves "T.R. Kids," meaning "The Rejected." It's mostly a mood piece, a slice of lives if not a primer for street survival in the late '70s early '80s.
A couple of thugs try to beat up a punk, but other T.R. punks show up & kick ass. The angered thugs enter a punk rock venue & stab one of the security punks in revenge.
Local gun-loving rednecks, themselves laid off unemployed losers victimized by the system, have similarly targetted these children. Kids are being scapegoated & some adults actually believe it'd be okay to shoot punks on sight.
A black cop (Donald V. Allen) tries to help the kids but mainly they've learned all adults want them dead. A night-time assault of their squat by armed rednecks is damned scary, & the kids start wondering if they shouldn't get guns too.
Sheila, the girl with the scarred back, saw a child torn to pieces by the scruffy wild dogs. She eventually dies in the squat, overdosing perhaps on purpose since she'd had a suicidal history. Joe had loved her, broken hearted over her apologetic suicide note.
The kids take Sheila's corpse home to her father. "She killed herself. We'd like to go to the funeral if you don't mind." When they do show up, Sheila's molesting dad tries to kick them out though they're very polite. She they punch him out.
Jack's step-dad is the cop who tries to help. He doesn't seem like a bad parent, unlike most of the kids' folks. He warns them to move out of the squat because "If they can't find you they can't hurt you."
The loser rednecks are at a stripper bar getting drunker & drunker, planning how next to do injury to the kids. What they don't know is the kids have decided not to abandon the squat, but fight for their home.
I was scared shitless for these kids, who apprised themselves well & justly, but the rednecks manage to kill the most innocent of all. I grew up believing rebellion is good, & I well know that hatred for youth is very real in America. The "war story" of Hell Suburbia did not seem improbable to me.
The realism of the piece was in great part due to the director having cast real punk rock kids, as actors could never have faked it this well. The majority of the events were based on news stories, so that even the most brutal moments are attested & real.
Among the extras, Penelope Spheeris's commentary track is awfully charming because she hadn't seen her own film in ages & seemed endlessly amused & surprised by stuff. Her nurdy giggle is beautiful. At one point she exclaimed as if surprised, "I was a good filmmaker before I sold out!"
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl